Mind and language

Mind and language

Innateness and learning

Some of the major issues in the philosophy of language that deal with the mind are paralleled by modern psycholinguistics. Some important questions: how much of language is innate? Is language acquisition a special faculty in the mind? What's the connection between thought and language?

There are three general perspectives on the issue of language learning:
  • The behaviorist perspective, which dictates that not only is the solid bulk of language learned, but it is learned via conditioning;
  • The hypothesis testing perspective, which states that syntactic rules and meanings are triangulated by a child using hypotheses, in much the same way that any learning occurs;
  • The innatist perspective, which states that at least some of the syntactic settings are innate and hardwired.
There are varying notions of the structure of the brain when it comes to language, as well:
  • Connectionist models, which emphasize the idea that a person's lexicon and their thoughts operate in a kind of network;
  • Nativist models, which assert that there are specialized devices in the brain that are dedicated to language acquisition;
  • Computation models, which emphasize the work done related to logic-like processing of the mind;
  • Emergentist models, which focus upon the notion that natural faculties are a complex system that emerge out of simpler biological parts;
  • Reductionist models

Language and thought

Another important question relating to language and the mind is, to what extent does language influence thought (and vice-versa)? There have been a number of different perspectives on this issue, ranging across a number of suggestions.

For example, linguists Sapir and Whorf suggested that language limited the extent to which members of a linguistic community can think about certain subjects (a hypothesis paralleled in George Orwell's novel "1984"). To a lesser extent, issues in the philosophy of rhetoric (including the notion of framing of debate) suggest the influence of language upon thought.

There is also some controversy about the very meaning of a "thought". Gottlob Frege believed that thought occupied a "third realm", that was neither psychological nor a part of the universe, and believed that his Begriffsschrift calculus was a theory of thought. By contrast, Wittgenstein - in the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus - considered thought to be a "significant proposition".

Social interaction and language

Metasemantics is a term of art used to describe all those fields that examine the social conditions that give rise to meanings and languages. Etymology (the study of the origins of words) and Stylistics (philosophical argumentation over what makes "good grammar", relative to a particular language) are two examples of metasemantic fields.

One of the major fields of sociology, symbolic interactionism, is based on the insight that human social organization is based almost entirely on the use of meanings. In consequence, any explanation of a social structure (like an institution) would need to account for the shared meanings which create and sustain the structure.

Rhetoric is the study of the particular words that people use in order to achieve the proper emotional and rational effect in the listener, be it to persuade, provoke, endear, teach, etc. Some relevant applications of the field include:
  • The examination of propaganda and didacticism;
  • The examination of the purposes of swearing and pejoratives (especially how it influences the behavior of others, and defines relationships);
  • The effects of gendered language;
  • Linguistic transparency, or speaking in an accessible manner, inspired by George Orwell's essay, Politics and the English Language;
  • Performative utterances and the various tasks that language can perform (called "speech acts"), pioneered by J.L. Austin's book, How to Do Things With Words.
  • The logical concept of the domain of discourse.
Literary theory is a discipline that overlaps with the philosophy of language. It emphasizes the methods that readers and critics use in understanding a text. This field, being an outgrowth of the study of how to properly interpret messages, is closely tied to the ancient discipline of hermeneutics.